(This is the seventh post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)
Deb was also the organizer of the small groups, and chose the initial 5 pieces for it. The piece I signed up for was Rore’s Ave Regina Caelorum, which was a thickly textured, long and slow piece for 7 voices. (At one point late in the week, when someone suggested it for Compline, Peter went so far as to call it “boring.”) The point of the small groups is to gain experience in working with your fellow singers, without a director to keep you together, or to maintain the balance, or to decide where to take the music. Deb would come by to check on us from time to time, and offer suggestions or corrections, but we were largely left on our own. With the Rore, we often found the parts drifting off with no one to conduct, and decided to have one of us give the beat. Even so, during the course of the piece, we would drift off, except when Deb stopped by to give us the beat. Because of the nature of the piece we were trying to do it in 2, and she told us to do it in 4 rather than 2, at least initially. This made it seem “notey” according to some, but worked much better in terms of keeping accurate rhythm. There was also an issue that I hadn’t anticipated: at some point we ran out of ideas of how to improve, and also had difficulty making sure all the notes were in fact correct. The ability to see the piece as a whole, and to bring out certain facets of it is what keeps directors employed I suppose. And though there were a good number of participants who were directors themselves, none had apparently ended up in the Rore group, and/or none were willing to step up and “direct” the piece. I think there may also have been some reluctance to take charge for fear of seeming bossy, but we could definitely have used some directing.
When all the small groups performed their pieces for each other towards the end of the week, in what was called the Sharing concert, we also mixed the voice parts, once for the rehearsal and then again for the performance, and suddenly having a new person next to us made life even more interesting. The piece as a whole was in a low register, with Alto I and Tenor I being about the same, and I ended up being shunted from the former to the latter. The notes being low was one thing, but having to read in the tenor staff scrambled my poor brain as well. I would see a note and my idea of where to place it in my voice would be totally wrong. Especially for the entrances, it was very useful to stand next to a genuine Tenor I (complete with sideburns!), who mostly knew what he was doing. The piece did have some beautiful moments though, and there are passages that I can still hear in my head. I am not sure we really brought out all the highlights of the piece, but when done well, as on a Tallis Scholars recording we heard, the piece has a serene, understated, shimmering quality, interspersed with a few moments of bright light. Deb said to us later that she was really glad we had stuck with the Rore, since she really liked the piece, and had wondered if we might not get bored with it and quickly move to another piece. We sure were a sincere bunch of kids out there! (It is quite a long piece though, and relatively unexciting given the length, and Peter later said that the piece, though not crazily chromatic like some of the Gesualdo, was “extreme in its own way.”)
I like Monteverdi a lot, so it was no bad thing that the other small group piece I ended up singing, in the “free-form” small groups, was his Ecco Mormorar L’Onde. It had a lot of duets between parts and word-painting to describe sunrise and associated events, and was a very satisfying piece. Certainly, we did better on it in the Sharing than we did on the Rore, which we were doing without Deb’s beat for the first time ever and (unsurprisingly) had to stop in the middle and reset. I was told that the small groups had been far more chaotic in past years, with people overbooking themselves and signing up for so many pieces that they needed an “anti-clash” diary to make sure they could rehearse with all their groups. By starting out with 5 pre-determined pieces, things were far more regulated, and though there were fewer pieces in the Sharing, they were apparently of higher quality. In any case, it was nice to sit and listen to what one’s fellow participants has been up to, and in turn show them what you had been doing. If we go back in time to days before TV and radio, friends may have entertained each other by making music together, and by singing and playing for each other. That’s what the Sharing felt like — a modern revival of an ancient practice. It also made me realize how much more the audience enjoys a piece if the singers appear to be enjoying themselves — the next time a choral director asks me to look up and smile, I might even heed him/her.
It is fun to think of Campion Hall during the small groups rehearsals. Groups of sizes varying from 3 to 17 would be spread out in various parts of the building — a lobby here, a hall there, the garden outside — and all would be working on their own piece. For a visitor to the building, anywhere they went, there would be some Renaissance music to be heard. Later on the threads would all come together for the Sharing concert, but that image of groups rehearsing everywhere and music temporarily taking over the place is lovely to my mind.